Lea Wait’s Favorite Jail

1811 Jail & Jailer’s House, Wiscasset, Maine

The first time I went to the 1811 jail in Wiscasset, Maine, I was ten years old, and checking off historic places in Maine I wanted to see in a guidebook my mother had bought.

I remember the dark granite cells; the dank smell which permeated the thick walls even though the filth tubs and pallets of straw and unwashed bodies had long since departed. Most of all, I remember the locked wooden rooms above the granite cells that once had held non-violent women, children, the insane, the contagious, and debtors. Together.  Memories of that jail stayed with me for years.

When I began writing historical novels for young people set in Wiscasset it wasn’t surprising that scenes in that jail began to appear in my books. First, in Wintering Well, where I included the visit of the doctor assigned to visit prisoners in the jail, and then in Finest Kind,  in which my young protagonist gets a job working at the jail.  In both books, all the people at the jail — from the jailer and his family to every prisoner named — are the real people who were there at the time I’m writing about. 

Today, as a docent at the jail, I’m the guide who takes people through the cells, and the attached jailer’s house (it was strongly recommended that jailers be married, and all but one were) where the jailer’s wife prepared three meals a day not only for her (usually large) family but for however many prisoners (between 4 and 30) were in residence.  In 1904 breakfast and supper both consisted of tea, 3 biscuits, and gingerbread. Dinner (the mid-day meal in New England) was soup and two biscuits, except for Sunday, when it was roast meat, potatoes — and — you guessed it — biscuits. 

Door into Cell

The jail was begun in 1809, and built of granite from a quarry in Edgecomb, across the river, and completed in 1811, just in time for the War of 1812. (Yes, for a short time it held some British sailors. British officers were housed as gentlemen — in the homes of Wiscasset’s finest families.) The walls of the jail are 41 inches thick at the base, and 31 inches thick at the roof.

Lock on door to 1st floor of cells

Heat for the prisoners was provided by one woodstove on each floor of the prison (in the hall)which was replaced by a stove heated by coal in the later part of the 19th century. It can’t have been very warm in winter months inside the  granite cells, although granite does hold some heat.  The most dangerous prisoners were kept in cells on the first floor, which has the thickest cells, designed for two prisoners, although, as with jails today, if there was a rowdy night at the tavern, more people might be housed there for a night or two.

In the nineteenth century boys were sent to jail for stealing apples or breaking windows at the school; adultery, theft, assault, counterfeiting and arson were relatively common charges for adult criminals. Until the middle of the 1830s, debtors were imprisoned, but most were given “freedom of the town” during the day to earn money, but had to return to the jail at night.

One cell was the “solitary” cell — it has only a slit for light, and a thick  door. There was no electricity anywhere in the jail, of course, so none of the cells were very light, but some of them had slightly larger iron barred windows. (Which in a few cells show signs of attempts to cut through them.) 

In Finest Kind I based a major scene on something that happened December 3, 1838. A blizzard was blowing up hard. Samuel Holbrook, the jailer at the time, was also the school master, so he and his pregnant wife, parents of three young children, had

Jailer’s Kitchen

fed the prisoners, and Holbrook had left to start the stove at the school, a mile or so away.  His wife was alone with her children when students on their way to school the house was on fire. One of them ran to tell Holbrook and get the Wiscasset fire department; the other got Mrs. Holbrook and her children out of the burning house, and then got the key to the jail and, one by one, got all the prisoners out of their cells and tired them to trees in the jail yard. By the time the fire department arrived the house had burned to the ground and the wooden parts of the jail had collapsed — but no one had been hurt. 

The prisoners were taken to the poor house to be confined there until the jail could be reconstructed.  The new jailer’s house was made of bricks. So if you visit the jail today, the first two floors of cells will be the originals, built in 1811; the third floor and the roof, and the jailer’s house,  in 1839.

Lea, dressed as docent, in jailer’s dining room

The jail was used full-time until 1913. After that it was used on an ad hoc basis:  for example, the cells held liquor seized during Prohibition — and as a result it’s the only jail in Maine that people tried to break INTO. At different times up until the mid 1950s it was also used to temporarily hold prisoners awaiting trial in the nearby Lincoln County Courthouse.  

Today it’s a museum cared for by the Lincoln County Historical Association, open to the public on summer weekends from 12-4, or by appointment.  If you visit the coast of Maine, it’s worth a stop. Stepping inside is a step into our past.

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5 Responses

  1. Really interesting, Lea, and great photos. I suppose the inmates who were let out during the day were closely observed? Any escapes? I love the scene of the fire, with the prisoners tied to trees.

    • Hi, Nancy! Yes, there were a couple of escapes — and many more that were thwarted. One many somehow escaped fromhis cell and the passageway to the cells (I have to think he had help from within) and then jumped over a five foot space — twenty feet above the ground — through a window — falling the twenty feet to the ground and landing on granite steps.He then ran down to the river (a quarter mile) and was never seen again. Was someone waiting for him in a boat? Was in injured, tried to swim, and drowned? No one knows. But he disappeared. As for the debtors with “freedom of the town” – they were well-known, and usually pretty respectable types. Very seldom did they not return at night. And the sheriff did keep an eye out for them during the day. Wiscasset wasn’t a large town; everyone knew everyone else! .

  2. Fascinating, Lea! As a teenager, I once spent a weekend with my best friend “baby-sitting” the county jail. Her uncle was the sheriff, and he and his wife needed to go away. A deputy was actually in charge, but they needed someone to cook for the prisoners. At thirteen, I was about up to peeling potatoes, but my friend was already a good cook. We followed her aunt’s instructions, and the trustee delivered the meals.

    No reviews, but if there were complaints, nobody told us.

    • What fun, Sara! I can imagne how exciting that must have been. (I also imagine the inmates seldom complained.) The children of the jailer at this jail were very involvbed with the prisoners — taking them meals, cleaning cells, emptying filth tubs, and so forth, along with helping in the garden and orchards that some of the families kept up near the jail. (The jailers were paid by the inmate, so if they kept down the expenses for food, they made more money.)

  3. One more great reason to visit Maine, Lea. Hope to see you and this fascinating site on my next trip (I’ll have to spend a little less time at LL Bean!) Thanks for alerting us.

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